|What images do you recall from childhood?
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
When I think of the quintessential American Indian sidekick in mainstream media, the name that first springs to mind is “Tonto.”
Sorry, Johnny Depp—I adore your Captain Jack Sparrow—but by that, I mean the “faithful Indian companion” depicted by Jay Silverheels (Mohawk), who co-starred in the 1949 to 1957 TV series “The Lone Ranger.”
When I was a kid in the 1970s and ’80s, there were only three national television stations, plus a local one. “The Lone Ranger” appeared in re-runs in syndication on my local station in Kansas City.
Errors in framing Tonto’s character abounded (part of Silverheels’ legacy is having played the role and part of it is having later spoofed it). But zeroing in on what I recall from childhood, the most remarkable thing about Tonto was that he existed at all.
Amidst a Western TV-movie tradition in which Indians were depicted as blurring, whooping bogeymen (or winsome primitive “princesses”), Tonto was a main character. Not the hero and stereotypical—but still, there he was. Tonto.
The only other mainstream media “Indian” characters I can recall are those (including winsome, primitive Princess Tiger Lily) from Disney’s 1953 animated film “Peter Pan.”
Of late, the conversation around occasionally forced buzzwords like “multiculturalism” and “diversity” in youth literature has deepened. Champions from writing and illustration, education, library science, bookselling, and within publishing houses are discussing the need for quality quantity. Speaking out matters, and that roar must translate to sales.
Vanguard authors from underrepresented communities like Joseph Bruchac, Nancy Garden, Uma Krishnaswami, Walter Dean Myers, Pat Mora, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Laurence Yep have broken ground for a new wave that includes Matt de la Peña, Eric Gansworth, Varian Johnson, Malinda Lo, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, G. Neri, and Varsha Bajaj as well as those who write within and cross-culturally or intersecting communities like Debby Dahl Edwardson, Brent Hartinger, Lynne Kelly, Jane Kurtz, Linda Sue Park, and Trent Reedy.
Meanwhile, our conversation has expanded to include not only characters of various religions, regions, ethnic and national origins and (increasingly) sexual orientations but also characters with a range of gender identities, characters with disabilities and those reflecting a greater range of body types, among others.
We have made strides, though the numbers don’t always show it, and there’s still work to be done.
One way or another, every single one of us is part of this struggle, this transition.
We are the establishment. We are accountable.
We must slay our inner chicken. Punt our inner snail.
Which brings us to: How?
How do we go about this? Writers are readers, so what are our strategies on both fronts?
For those who write within and/or outside personal experience, how do we honor and craft stories for the young readers of today and beyond?
This past week I received a message every single day from a different non-Indian writer, asking me how to approach children’s-YA fiction with Native American characters.
That’s right, every single day for a week.
In the past, I’ve received such queries now and then—never before in a deluge.
All expressed concern about their responsibility to diversity and to getting it right. They care. Caring leads to communication.
That said, it’s not hard to understand resistance to the conversation. There’s peril in addressing subject matter so emotionally charged, and at times, we all fret finding the right words. There’s also a lingering tension, a frustration that some of us experience in feeling obliged to articulate what seems self-evident to us but isn’t always to our friends and colleagues.
How does any of that help?
So more and more, writers find ourselves talking with each other about these issues. For example, on the same afternoon, I met with a white writer who felt he’d be unfairly targeted with criticism and with a Mexican-American author so concerned that a story based on her own childhood wasn’t sufficiently “representative” that she was on the verge of giving up…giving up writing altogether.
Take a breath. Let it out. Repeat as necessary.
Truth is, all authors worry about doing our best work and connecting with readers. Or at least we should. I know I do. I write both within and across. My latest story, a romance-friendship short, is told from the perspective a black, male, gay guardian angel. We all must stretch to some degree.
Is there one right way to write? Definitely not.
My own process has evolved over time and depending on the demands of
each manuscript. But writing defensively tends to be self-defeating. We can’t anticipate every reader’s politics or pet peeves, and even if we could, trying to placate them all would result in bland, banal mush.
Let’s take risks, learn from our mistakes, and set aside our longing for bright-line rules, our quest for a single formula. It’s never going to be that easy.
An example: I’ve heard it said—as though the matter were settled—that we should no longer write Native characters or those of color as best friends. The concern is that “tossing in” a minority best friend/sidekick is a halfhearted attempt at diversity, and in doing so, defaults to stereotypes.
There’s validity to the implied critique. It’s the tossing, I suspect, that’s the problem.
Or, put another way, it was Greg Leitich Smith who jokingly suggested I title this post “The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die.”
I mostly went with it, even though I opened with Tonto, who neither cracked wise nor died first, though…in his particular case…it might’ve actually improved the character if he had.
I know Tonto. I’m familiar with the stereotypes. I grew up with them, and so did most of you.
But do we really want it to follow that in any story with a, say, white, straight, able-bodied protagonist, the best friend can never be Lebanese-American or Korean-Canadian or transgendered?
That would quickly decrease representation, and kids crave it in roles both big and small.
Besides, what if the author doesn’t feel ready to take on writing, say, a cross-cultural protagonist? Does that mean her supporting casts must always be uniformly of her same culture, orientation, religion, body type, etc.?
What purpose does that serve? What is the cost?
On the other hand, because the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die trope (or, in fairness, combination of tropes) has become so prevalent, it’s worth second-guessing ourselves to ensure we don’t descend into cliché. (And it’s by no means the only trope that merits second-guessing—just the one we’re considering right now.)
In writing fiction, we focus on characters—especially protagonists and antagonists—as well as plot, setting, any speculative constructs, and watch for themes to arise.
Authorial sensibility is crucial. It’s also tricky, sinking deep into our subconscious. We can only be so aware of it. But we can develop a more inclusive, more socially aware sensibility with nurturing.
True, characters have sensibilities of their own, sometimes in direct contradiction to ours. Of course they will have flaws and make mistakes. Some of them may be genuinely lousy individuals. (I have written Lucifer. I am not the devil.) But how we frame our characters’ thoughts and behaviors, to varying degrees, still comes back to us.
Steps to Consider in Creating a World with Diverse Characters
It’s within our power to:
- Widen our range of model texts. Study books by the authors mentioned above and then keep reading. It’s a small sampling, one of many places to begin.
- Pay attention to the conversation around literature and diversity. I routinely highlight related articles and books here at Cynsations.
- Weigh various viewpoints, competing viewpoints. Realize there will always be exceptions, and that sometimes seemingly contradictory truths can co-exist.
- Consider (and reconsider) our vision for representation within our own body of work and our reasons for it. The exercise of articulating one’s philosophy can be illuminating.
- Remember that execution is everything.
- Ask ourselves the tough questions. Be honest in our answers.
- Write from the heart.
Together these steps can increase our understanding, our resources, and what we bring to bear.
When I say “tough questions,” what do I mean?
Enough with the abstracts. I’ll step up. Once I have a novel draft, along with a myriad of craft considerations, I gut-check my cast. The goal is to reflect and weigh assumptions, to question impulses and instincts.
My latest novel, Feral Curse (Book 2 in the Feral trilogy), introduces a secondary character, Jess Bigheart. Jess is the best friend of Kayla Morgan, who offers one of the alternating points of view, along with fellow protagonist Yoshi Kitahara.
Avoiding spoilers as best I can (but—fair warning—not 100%), here’s roughly how that shakes out with Jess:
Jess is a Native American. This can’t come as a huge surprise. Am I going to craft a fantasy world, based on this real one, without any Native people in it?
Obviously, no. American Indians are in this world. American Indians are in that one. Attentive readers of the previous books have already noticed a brushstroke or two to that effect.
Jess doesn’t get a lot of screen time, though it looks like she’ll have a larger role in Book 3, “Feral Pride.” But cue the raised brow. Jess, a Native American, is Kayla’s best friend.
Is she Tonto? Is she the “faithful Indian companion”?
Let’s briefly address that and go more global. I’m by no means talking only about writing Native characters. There are considerations specific to each community, which merit conversations unto themselves. But there’s also common ground.
Is she a stock character or stereotype?
Skimming the pages… Jess is a high school student who lives in fictional, small-town Pine Ridge, Texas. She has thick curly hair. She’s an Osage girl, a citizen of Osage Nation in Oklahoma and has ties to the urban Indian community in Austin. She’s the local sheriff’s daughter, and the relationship between her and her dad is great. They go fishing together. She helps out part-time at his office.
What else? Jess is close to her sisters. She’s played soccer and studied ballet. She likes superhero and sci-fi movies (I adore geeky characters). I could go on, but Jess is an individual.
Note: If Jess had a smaller role, like a walk-on or cameo, would the same level of development be necessary? No, a few brushstrokes might do. But just because it wouldn’t all appear on the page doesn’t relieve us for thinking it through.
Is she the exotic (related to stock, but with its own spin)?
In a novel where the characters include shape-shifters, a ghost, a yeti-like boy and a near-south Austinite?
She’s arguably the most typical YA character in the story.
Besides, Jess isn’t the only Native or “minority” character and, for that matter, she’s not the only significant human character either.
Is she a diminished/”magical” character?
Is she only there to impart Yoda-like wisdom or to make the protagonist(s) look good?
Feral Curse is Kayla’s story (and, to a lesser degree, Yoshi’s), but Jess holds her own. I can’t explain without spoilers, but Jess isn’t there purely to bolster Kayla (or Kevin Costner). They each have their moments.
Note: The “magical minority” usually involves stories featuring a white, straight, able-bodied, etc. protagonist, which doesn’t apply. Kayla is black, a werecat adopted from Ethiopia by African-American human parents. Yoshi is a Eurasian (Japanese) werecat, newly relocated to Austin from rural Kansas. However, even where the protagonist isn’t white, straight, able-bodied, etc., the question is still worth considering.
Does she die first?
Horror fans should especially appreciate this question. I’m not going to tell you the answer. The series has its share of life-and-death suspense. But suffice it to say, I’m not spending a lot of time on this question for Jess.
Note: It’s not that the “minority” best friend should never die or be in jeopardy. We don’t want automatically safe characters any more than too-disposable ones. Instead, we should weigh our motivations, what’s accomplished and why.
Is she “a model minority”?
Both Jess and Kayla are keeping secrets from each other, but Jess also spills info that maybe she shouldn’t. In my draft of book 3, nobody’s playing strictly by society’s rules, Jess included (society is bent, verging on broken). She’s a good kid, but not perfect.
Does heritage/identity/culture/etc. inform the character?
Yes. Will non-Indian readers notice? Maybe. Will Native readers pick up on it? Not necessarily, but probably most of them will.
In my latest revision of Book 3, I reconsidered Jess’s role in a scene and realized, for culturally-based reasons, she should disagree with Kayla and say so. I revised accordingly.
Not because all Native people always think the same or are raised the same way, but because of this specific character under those specific circumstances. I’d missed it before because I was so deep into Yoshi’s point of view.
Note: The extent to which this question comes into play will vary, depending on the story. We don’t want characters so identity obsessed/trapped that they never get off the ground. They shouldn’t be two-dimensional excuses for social studies lessons or to score political points.
What will young readers think of her? How about teens she reflects?
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own intent, however benevolent, that we forget to consider impact.
Are there limits to our ability to do so? Sure, but if we’re writing a related character, we’re already stretching in that direction.
I hope Osage/Native teens will like Jess and her dad. Some may wonder about my choice of “Pine Ridge” for the name of the town. One has already written to ask me if it’s a wink. I love that, “a wink.” In any case, they’re not going to shrink in their seats if this book is read aloud in class.
Note: How about small-town teens? Texans? Girls? Geeks? Identity is a bundled package.
This isn’t to say that a character of any background can’t be an antagonist, even a villain. We want to reflect the full range of humanity. With characters wrapped in a fantasy construct (like werecats), that burden is even higher. But let’s ask ourselves if we’re using identity markers as shorthand for inferiority, malice, or stereotypical traits. Maybe not intentionally, but simply from having absorbed certain predispositions as members of our overarching society.
Sometimes we choose not to reinforce everyone’s comfort zone. Remember my black, male, gay guardian angel? His name is Joshua, and he first debuted in Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).
I routinely write heroic characters of faith. Kayla Morgan and Jess Bigheart from Feral Curse, for example. Cassidy Rain Berghoff from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) and Ray Halfmoon from Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). It concerns me that people of faith constitute an underrepresented group in children’s-YA literature.
At the same time, I know religion is sometimes cited as a justification for homophobia. I’ve been asked why I found it “necessary” to write gay secondary characters like Ruby, Sergio, Harrison, Freddy and Evie. But if a few readers are put off by Joshua, so be it.
I stand with my angels.
Again, the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die isn’t the only trope(s) or issue to consider. These are by no means the only questions, merely a sampling. They can be applied to characters with various combinations of identity markers.
I’ve mentally clicked through them (and more) for all of my own characters, including Aimee who’s a white, middle class, straight, able-bodied, self-described “Goth girl/geek girl/New Age hippie girl.” Her point being, she’s more than a label. She won’t be stuck in a box.
Do I move forward only if I have ideal answers to each question?
No, they’re tools, not chains.
|Now available in paperback & on audio
Take Yoshi. I don’t love that he’s a fantastical person—a werecat—and the only Asian/Eurasian American character in this book. But Pine Ridge is loosely based on Bastrop, Texas.
Bastrop’s largest minority populations are African American (17 percent) and Latino of any race (almost 18 percent). I already have Native characters in a town wherein its model has a less than one percent population (one family).
Granted, Yoshi’s not a Eurasian American human. He’s a Puma concolor sapiens. Yes, he earns his Cat status. His shifter abilities, societal situation and sensibility all come into play.
He has his feral moments, which don’t quite line up with preferred societal behavior, in the way that werecats (or–cough–teenagers) sometimes do.
But in my experience, only grown-ups will split hairs in gauging his representativeness. Teens will view him as reflecting Japanese or Eurasian Americans and werecats. And they crave diverse heroes in speculative fiction. They want the world to root for them like we do for Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter. Remember: Anybody can be a hero that everybody cheers.
In fictionalizing, I can tweak, but introducing another Asian American character, for the sake of it, might feel forced. It could jolt readers out of the story in the same way the lack of Asians/Asian Americans sometimes jolts this devoted Whedonite out of “Firefly”/“Serenity” and Buffyverse.
On the upside, there are Asian American human characters previously featured in the Tantalize-Feral universe. That’s the best I can do right now.
Meanwhile, given the focus on shifters, I framed to indicate that “of color” doesn’t suggest “animal.” The diversity within my cast pushes against it. The humans of color, the shifters who project WASP. Clyde Gilbert, a Wild Card Lossum (Lion-Possum), is a co-protagonist and presents as a white boy.
As for Kayla, I’ve looked twice at her as a model minority. She’s at the top of her high school class, has an engineering scholarship to Cal Tech, and is a track and cross-country state champion. Her dad is the mayor, effectively making her the first daughter of Pine Ridge. On the other hand, she underestimates people who love her, arguably takes advantage of her cheetah-like speed, and keeps secrets from her parents. We weigh competing traits, the reasons behind them, and go from there.
Does heritage/identity/culture inform my leads?
Feral Curse features an Asian-American guy and a “dark-skinned girl” as dynamic, attractive headline heroes (despite hopefully fading prejudices to the contrary).
The super-arc over the series focuses on conflicts between different species within the Homo genus—Homo sapiens, Homo shifters (including subgroups) and Homo deific.
Thematic questions include: What makes us human, and what makes us humane?
The nature of those tensions have real-world parallels. Brushstrokes illuminate the real-world context. The magic is in the metaphor.
The tone isn’t heavy-handed. My characters are adept at wit and humor. They’re plugged into pop culture. It’s fast-paced adventure-fantasy, after all. I tell teens the story is about “spec-fic geeks in a spec-fic world.” But however (hopefully seamlessly) interwoven, there’s no way around it. That construct is unusual. In children’s-YA publishing, it could be interpreted as a statement.
I respect my YA readers. I trust them.
Within the story, I largely let it speak for itself.
Might another writer handle it differently?
Might she make different judgment calls with casting? Might he emphasize theme in a different way? Might an apprentice using my book as a model wish I’d done something else?
The point is not the results of my abbreviated sample analysis but that we all engage. We ask questions and wrestle with answers. Sometimes we make changes. Sometimes we don’t.
And hey…hey you, over in the corner! Yes, you!
Remember what I said about breathing?
Don’t panic. Maybe you’re still trying to figure out what “point of view” means. Maybe you’re doing well to write what you do know, let alone beyond it. Maybe you’re a teen writer, seeking refuge in Story. That’s okay. Really, it is.
What we feel ready to do and when? Those are deeply personal questions. Ones each of us has to answer for ourselves. Every manuscript—from apprentice to contracted—has its limits and possibilities. Every writer does, too, but that balance shifts over the course of our creative journeys.
It’s like exercise. Forcing a performance goal before we’re ready tempts injury. Working steadily toward it may be a smoother path to success.
Give yourself permission to grow. In the meantime, do what we all should be doing to support diversity in children’s-YA publishing.
- Step up as a reader, a noise-maker, a library advocate and bookstore consumer.
- Talk to young people about reading and writing and publishing.
- Welcome new voices into the writing life.
- Mentor, when you’re ready.
- Share your knowledge of the craft and industry.
- S-t-r-e-t-c-h and celebrate.
Actor Jay Silverheels’ legacy is fascinating, layered and contradictory. It still generates strong feelings in his Native and non-Indian audiences, both pro and con.
Did you know he was a boxer and a lacrosse player and a stuntman? He appeared with Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” (1948). His birth name was Harold J. Smith.
I’ve been contemplating his work with the Indian Actors’ Workshop. It inspired me consider and reconsider his career. It prompted me to reflect on creative communities and ponder the importance of each of us, in whatever way we can, reaching within and beyond ourselves.
Hello again. Did you watch the video of the Indian Actor’s Workshop? How about the video, “Jay Silverheels: The Man Behind the Mask?” Did
you see the children in each?
Consider what was said. Consider what went unsaid, and then reconsider all of the above.
My inspiration for this post was a Jan. 17th article in Indian Country Today, reporting that the real “Lone Ranger” was an African American who lived with the Muscogee Creeks and Seminoles. It made me to think about the Hollywood version of the story, about my own stories for young readers, and, in turn, the body of youth literature more globally. (That, plus the recent uptick in writer inquiries, led to this post.)
It also reminded me of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Coretta Scott King Award book Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Carolrhoda, 2009).
I’m mentally folding the practice of consulting beta readers/experts under “the conversation around literature and diversity,” but quickly:
- Be gracious, appreciative, patient and respectful;
- Don’t presume anyone owes you their knowledge or time;
- Recognize diversity within communities (i.e., “Native” isn’t necessarily “Osage”);
- Seek more than one point of view;
- Listen and apply advice, even if it means taking “no” for an answer;
- Sometimes silence equals “no” for an answer (sometimes your message is lost in spam);
- Where recommendations are irreconcilable, perhaps address the issue in your author’s note or, if possible, consider making due without (or writing around) that content;
- Don’t use sources’/readers’ names without express permission;
- Reference sources/readers in an “any-mistakes-are-mine” way, not as human body shields.
While writers can (and increasingly do) successfully write beyond our own identity markers, life experience does matter, and voices from underrepresented communities should be nurtured, sought out and held up as models.
For example, to say that (my literary crush) Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s personal background hasn’t enriched and informed his writing strikes me as ridiculous (of course his commitment to developing his literary art played the decisive role).
At the same time, should Ben elect to craft a story about, say, tapestry-weaving dragons from an alternate dimension, I will be first in line to purchase and marvel over it.
My sample analysis goes beyond one book because Feral Curse is part of a trilogy, which spun off from the pre-existing Tantalize series, set in the same universe. So, I consider each novel both as a stand-alone and as part of the whole.
Check out Writing Cross-Culturally and 10 Resources for Writing Cross-Culturally from Lee & Low.
Feral Curse is now available in hardcover and e-book and Feral Nights is now available in hardcover, e-book and paperback from Candlewick Press in North America. Both novels are likewise now available on audio from Brilliance. The series is also published by Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia and New Zealand. For more information, see Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes. At that link, you can also enter a six-book giveaway, sponsored by Candlewick Press.
The term “vanguard authors” is borrowed with great affection from the Brown Bookshelf, partly as an excuse to urge you to check out 28 Days Later, a currently ongoing Black History Month celebration of children’s-YA authors and illustrators.
Tropes are not necessarily bad. As Television Tropes and Idioms points out, “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word ‘clichéd’ means ‘stereotyped and trite.'”
The Joshua short story I reference is tentatively titled “Cupid’s Beaux” and will appear in Things I’ll Never Say, Short Stories about Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, spring 2015).
For you “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” fans, Greg Leitich Smith has this theory that U.C. Sunnydale has such a low Asian-American population because it’s simply not that good of a school. Yes, he thinks he’s hilarious.
On a related note, check out Secret Asian Man, My Husband, Yoshi Kitahara & Feral Nights. Peek: “I distinctly remember…being a teenager, sitting in the front
seat of a parked car one night, talking to my then best girlfriend and
admitting that I found it hard to imagine ever being attracted to an
Asian guy…. Doesn’t sound like me, does it?”
I’ve never seen “Avatar” (2009), so I can’t comment on it per se but am rather nodding to the “South Park” episode that spoofed it. I’m not a regular “South Park” viewer, but that one caught my attention. Note: I haven’t seen Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger” (2013) either.
Yes, the Pine Ridge town name is “a wink.” What it means should become clear in the future. On a more literal note, the Bastrop region is home to the famous Texas lost pines.
With regard to the “model minority,” I linked to the “Glee” episode, “Asian F” (2011), which features a parody of the stereotype and is one of my fave episodes. I’m a fan of Harry Shum, Jr., who plays glee-club member, dancer extraordinaire, and emerging singer Mike Chang.
Are you still reading? That’s tremendously generous. My first instinct was to split the post into three parts or reduce the word count by half. But upon reconsideration, I decided to settle in for a while. I appreciate that you cared enough to join me. Thank you.